Depending on who you talk to, the Toronto International Film Festival is either the first, second, or third most important film festival in the world (the challengers being Cannes and Venice). It is indisputably the most influential in North America (the trying, unpleasant Sundance not excepted). Roger Ebert has called Toronto "the most useful" festival, and the immense roster confirms that impression. Over a ten-day period, the Toronto Film Festival presents 311 films (244 features and 67 shorts), 144 of which are North American or World Premieres. Even the most eager and dedicated festival goer can only hope to see about 15% of what is offered, which means that sacrifices must always be made.
The festival is divided into 13 categories. The two highest-profile, the Galas and the Special Presentations, offer sneak previews of films likely to show up in multiplexes or art houses later this year or early in 1999. Many of the entries into these two categories already have distributors; the rest will be eagerly courting suitors. It's likely that Miramax, Fine Line, October, and Sony Pictures Classics will all go home with at least one new release on their schedules. Last year, for example, only one of 18 Gala presentations was left without a North American distributor.
Including the Opening and Closing Night films, this year, like last year, there are 18 Galas. The festival starts out with a showing of The Red Violin, Canadian director Francois Girard's followup to his 1993 art house hit, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould. The Red Violin, which features Samuel L. Jackson, Gretta Scacchi, and Colm Fiore, is an episodic movie that tracks the path of one musical instrument over the years as it is transferred from owner to owner. Nine days after The Red Violin is shown, the festival will wrap with the World Premiere of Dreamworks' Antz, which is the first of two computer animated insect movies to enter general release this fall (the other being Disney's A Bug's Life). In between, the Gala program will screen the likes of Robert Towne's Without Limits (this movie, originally called Pre, was delayed for over a year to avoid competing with 1997's box office dud, Prefontaine), Pat O'Connor's Dancing at Lughnasa (starring Meryl Streep in the story of a '30s Irish family), Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan (starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton -- the duo from One False Move -- in a thriller), Benoit Jacquot's L'Ecole de la chair (with Isabelle Hupert), Gary Ross' much-anticipated Pleasantville (with two '90s kids entering a black-and-white '50s sit-com world), and Living out Loud, the directorial debut of Richard LaGravenese (who wrote The Fisher King and adapted The Bridges of Madison County).
The Special Presentations category, which receives almost as much press and attention as the Galas, consists of 21 features this year. Merchant Ivory's latest, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (starring Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Hershey), explores the travails of an American family that, after spending many years in Paris, must return to the United States. Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, the Holocaust drama/fantasy which won the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes Film Festival, will show in advance of its late-October theatrical release. Maya Angelou makes her directorial debut with Down in the Delta, the story of the lives and loves of characters living in the Deep South. John Waters returns to feature film making after a four year absence with Pecker, starring Edward Furlong and Christina Ricci. Bryan Singer, lauded for The Usual Suspects, directs Ian McKellan in Apt Pupil, about an ex-Nazi living under cover in an American community. Peter Chelsom's The Mighty, about two mismatched children who form an unlikely pair, is one of the year's best family films. John Turturro returns to the director's chair with Illuminata, a farcical, behind-the-scenes look at the world of the theater. Paul Greengrass directs real-life couple Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter in The Theory of Flight, about the unusual friendship between a man and the physically impaired woman he cares for. Finally, the re-edited Touch of Evil, which recently showed at the Telluride Film Festival, will be screened in advance of its theatrical run.
The Masters segment of the festival screens features from world-renowned film makers. This year's selection comprises 15 entries, several of which are highly anticipated. Included are new films by Theo Angelopoulos (1998's Cannes Palm d'Or winner Eternity and a Day), Bernardo Bertolucci (The Siege), Ken Loach (My Name is Joe), Eric Rohmer (Autumn Tale), John Boorman (The General), the Taviani Brothers (Tu ridi), Nanni Moretti (Aprile), and Shohei Inamura (Dr. Akagi).
The portion of the festival that generates the most local interest is Perspective Canada, which (not surprisingly) shows features made by Canadian directors. Last year, Perspective Canada opened with one of the festival's favorites, The Hanging Garden (which subsequently made a modest art house splash in the U. S.). This year, the choice is Don McKellar's Last Night. This is the directorial debut for the actor/writer, who has appeared in such films as Exotica, and has scripted both Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and The Red Violin (along with director Francois Girard). In 1998, Perspective Canada offers 20 full-length movies, including Robert Lepage's No, Jean Pierre Lefebvre's Aujourd'hu ou jamais, and eight feature debuts. There is also a heavy dosage of shorts, with 42 available in seven special programs.
The Contemporary Word Cinema section is easily the festival's most crowded, with 79 movies selected. 32 countries are represented, including the United States, France, England, Mexico, Taiwan, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Brazil, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, the Philippines, Russia, Venezuela, Austria, Iran, Finland, China, Iceland, New Zealand, Hungary, Colombia, Korea, and the Czech Republic. Selected film titles are Late August, Early September, the latest from Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep); Todd Solondz's Happiness, one of the sensations at Cannes; Desert Blue, from Morgan J. Freeman (Hurricane Streets); Didier Le Pecheur's wild Don't Let Me Die on Sunday, which tackles subjects like necrophilia and sadomasochism; actor Peter Berg's directorial debut, Very Bad Things; Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels, another Cannes favorite; Hal Hartley's 63-minute The Book of Life; Claire Dolan, Lodge Kerigan's long-awaited followup to Clean, Shaven; The Wounds, from Srdjan Dragojevic (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame), Saul Rubinek's Jerry and Tom, which debuted at Sundance; Stanley Tucci's The Impostors; and actor John Lynch's first stint behind the camera, the thriller Night Train, starring John Hurt and Brenda Blethyn.
Discovery is typically the category that presents odd, unusual, or unlikely-to-be-distributed features. This year's program lists 30 of them, hailing from as near as the United States to as far as Estonia. All but four are from first-time directors. Midnight Madness also offers a look at offbeat movies. This year, there are nine films (one for each night of the festival except Opening Night), including Lance Mungia's Six String Samurai and the campy 1977 Hong Kong flick, Mighty Peking Man (a takeoff of Dino De Laurentiis' King Kong remake).
Another significant program at the festival is Planet Africa, a series designed to "reinforce the global nature of African and diaspora experience." Marc Levin's Slam, which captured top honors at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, is presented here, along with nine other features. Real to Reel is the documentary section, with nine entries including Ron Havilio's six-hour Fragments*Jerusalem, a performance piece by ex-Saturday Night Live cast member Julia Sweeney (exec produced by Quentin Tarantino), and Angel on My Shoulder, Donna Dietch's portrait of her dying friend, Gwen Welles. The New Beat of Japan takes a look at modern-day Japanese cinema, with 18 movies, including Hirokazu Kore-Eda's followup to Maborosi, After Life. The Director's Spotlight this year shines on Kazakhstan's Darezhan Omirbaev, and will present three features and two shorts. Canadian Film Centre at Ten features retrospectives of six Canadian films, including Zero Patience and Thirty-Two Films about Glenn Gould.
That leaves one of the festival's most interesting programs, Dialogues: Talking with Pictures, which exhibits a classic film selected and introduced by a festival guest. This year's roster is as follows: Joseph Losey's Boom! , presented by John Waters; Zoltan Korda's The Four Feathers, presented by Robert Towne; Powell/Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, presented by John Boorman; Orson Welles' Othello, presented by Francois Girard; Sam Fuller's Forty Guns, presented by Mika Kaurismaki; Luis Bunuel's Nazarin, presented by Arturo Ripstein; and Satyajit Ray's Charulata, presented by James Ivory.
So that's this year's group. At this point, it's unclear which of these numerous choices I'm going to fit into my tight schedule, but my final tally should reach about 30 films. With many film festivals, a bad movie can be a severe disappointment. With Toronto, however, there are so many options that the failures are just inconveniences. If it's bad, you move on and turn your attention to something else. Not everything that shows here will be great (or, for that matter, even good), but I should go home with at least a few more candidates for my end-of-the-year Top 25 list.
© 1998 James Berardinelli